As expected, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team starts with a kidnapping. The Mario brothers and Princess Peach receive an invite to the newest tourist attraction, Pi'illo Island, which is filled with ruins of a civilization that disappeared overnight. Apparently a batlike creature, Antasma, attempted to use the power of two magical stones on the island to dominate the world. The Pi'illo people sacrificed themselves to stop him, turning into stone pillows and trapping Antasma in the dream world. Not long after the group arrives on Pi'illo, Antasma escapes and kidnaps the Princess, as all Mario villains seem contractually obligated to do. Fortunately, Luigi has the power to travel into the dream world as long as he's napping on a fossilized Pi'illo. Together, the brothers have to save the people of Pi'illo Island and rescue Peach.
Dream Team is the usual lighthearted Mario affair. There's talk about world domination and potential apocalypses, but the characters are silly and cheerful, and the plot is presented with a humorous touch. Pi'illo Island is a tourist attraction and has attracted people from all over the world, including a few cameos from other Mario & Luigi titles, but the star is Luigi. Since h has the power to enter the dream world, most of the game revolves around his problems and neuroses. You get an idea of what makes Luigi tick, and that can be a little disturbing. The trip into Luigi's subconscious is one of the eeriest things you'll encounter in a Mario title. Despite that, it's a fun title and a welcome relief from the countless overly serious RPGs on the market.
The game world is divided into two parts: the overworld and the dream world. In the overworld, you explore in three dimensions with an overhead view, so you can jump, burrow, and otherwise travel at your leisure. Most of the dream world, which you enter via a portal, consists of 2-D gameplay and is more focused on puzzles and platforming. You need to frequently venture between the two since you'll need to awaken sleeping Pi'illos to open doors so you can reach new places.
As the game progresses, you unlock moves that open new areas. In the overworld, this takes the form of cooperative moves like the Spin Jump, which makes both brothers work together to form a tornado that carries them across gaps. In the dream world, Luigi possesses an object. The player can then use the touch-screen to manipulate the object to do things, like slow down time or alter gravity. If this sounds familiar, that's because it's structured like Bowser's Inside Story, with Luigi's dream world replacing Bowser's insides. There's very little difference between the two games aside from a visual upgrade and a handful of new mechanics.
This similarity is Dream Team's weakest area. It's a charming, funny, and clever game, but it also feels like a "greatest hits" rather than something original. You'll see a lot of references to previous games. The new characters are funny, but they're not as funny as the older ones. The new environments are fun to explore, but they're not as fun to explore. It's fun to see the characters from various Mario & Luigi games coming together, but it kind of underlines that the new Pi'illos are bland compared to some of the colorful and exciting characters from previous titles. Fortunately, the combat is more than enough to bring it up to the series standard.
Regular combat is unchanged from Bowser's Inside Story. The classic Mario & Luigi RPG combat system is present and feels familiar. On the surface, it's a by-the-numbers turn-based combat system, but every in-game action involves timed button presses. Mario and Luigi are your only two party members, with Mario's every action bound to the A button and Luigi's to the B button. When you select jump, you attack an enemy and must time your button presses to do extra damage. Even your special moves, dubbed "Bros. Attacks," are similar. You play a minigame and cause damage by either using the buttons or the 3DS's tilt feature. The more successful you are at the minigame, the more damage you do, so it rewards twitch skills and mechanical precision. Doing well at combat also fills up your badge meter for special moves, which vary depending on the active badge.
The largest problem with the combat is that it doesn't offer anything new. The badge meter system has been reworked to be more forgiving. You gain energy more slowly but won't lose it as easily and can store full charges for later use. The Bros. Attacks are also new, but despite this, it feels very similar to Bowser's Inside Story. The combat system is fast, frantic and fun, but at the same time, it makes it tougher to feel excited about new things when it feels like you're borrowing so heavily from a prior title.
In the dream world, combat changes slightly. Luigi isn't present, but his dream-self, Dreamy Luigi, fuses with Mario and boosts the red plumber's stats. Combat mechanics also change to compensate for this. In the dream world, you fight a large number of weaker enemies. In the dream world, Bros. Attacks are replaced with Luiginary attacks, which focus on striking multiple foes at once. Jump on an enemy, and multiple Luigis rain down around your target. Use a hammer attack, and you strike an entire line.
The enemy design in Dream Team is fantastic. Every enemy has gimmicks and quirks that really make them stand out. The action-based combat mechanics essentially turn every enemy attack round into a minigame. You may need to dodge attacks, time your hammer blows to parry an enemy's attack, or counter a specific move. As the game progresses, more complex foes are introduced, and each enemy has multiple attacks that you'll have to learn to survive combat. One enemy creates a pair of fake bombs in addition to a real one and plays a quick shell game before tossing the three at you, forcing you to block the real bomb. Another holds rocks above his head, rendering him immune to jump attacks. There are also Expert Challenges for each area, tasking you to defeat enemies without getting hit or missing attacks.
Each boss is a frantic combination of dodges and counterattacks that are among the best the franchise has ever put forth. Surprisingly, Dream Team can be pretty challenging. Bowser, who normally serves a tutorial boss, can easily wipe you out in his first appearance. Several later enemies can eliminate your entire health bar with a single attack. Despite this, the game never feels unfair. Each enemy has a tell, and once you learn it, you can dodge even the deadliest attacks with ease. It makes combat feel exciting and frantic because every enemy can hit hard, and at the same time, you can survive the battles if you're good enough. You're also offered some interesting character customization options, such as equipping armor that nullifies three enemy hits but is worthless afterward. If you're good at dodging, this can be the best equipment in the game, but if you're not, then you might want to equip regular defense pants instead.
Occasionally, you'll encounter Giant Battles, another element from Bowser's Inside Story. This time, they involve Dreamy Luigi combining with the Luiginoids to form a giant Luigi. Giant battles are one-on-one fights against massive opponents, and you play these segments by turning the 3DS sideways, like a book. The combat is done entirely on the touch-screen. These battles are simple and well made. You have a handful of moves, but using the correct move in the correct place is key. Your hammer attacks can knock enemies backward or into the background. Your jump attack is powerful but doesn't work if the enemy is in a defensive stance. There are also Bros. Moves with a tiny Mario riding in Luigi's hat, but these moves leave Mario tired and force him to spend a few rounds recharging. The giant battles are a fun diversion from regular combat. It's also an area that is an improvement over Bowser's Inside Story, if only because there aren't any annoying microphone mechanics.
One area where Dream Team could lighten up is tutorials. The game offers a tutorial on just about every game mechanic, and sometimes, it does so more than once. Most are skippable, and the few that aren't are not egregious, but it feels excessive after a while. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the game is so similar to the last Mario & Luigi title. The tutorials are good for new players who need the mechanics explained, but it can slow down veterans who just want to stomp on monsters. An option for veteran players to get a head's-up on new mechanics would've been helpful. Sometimes, the game leaves you alone, but other times, a sidekick gives you a color-coded hint to an easy puzzle. This is good for younger gamers but annoying for others. There are some bones here for the more hardcore set, including an unlockable Hard mode that adds some replay value to the 30-hour adventure.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team uses a new prerendered art style. It takes some time to get used to, but it's used well and is incredibly charming. The characters are fluidly animated and extremely expressive, and this is often used for some excellent slapstick comedy. It's easy to notice how the switch allowed the animators to be more expressive than the canned sprites from previous titles. As usual, the game is almost completely unvoiced, aside from a few voice clips from the brothers. Also as usual, the soundtrack is top-notch. Yoko Shimomura returns to provide a memorable and exciting soundtrack comprised of new and old tunes. The soundtrack has always been a highlight of the franchise, and Dream Team is no different.
For all the good and bad that it implies, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is more of the same. The series core strengths are still there, and it's still funny, charming, and has a wonderful combat system. The shine has worn off at least a little, so it's a credit to the franchise's strengths that even a retread of the previous game still feels like one of the best RPGs on the 3DS. In any other franchise, it wouldn't be noticeable, but the Mario & Luigi franchise is usually better about making each game unique. Any RPG fan with a 3DS should try the game. Just don't be surprised if everything feels a little familiar.
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